If you've grown up in the Dayton area, chances are you've had plenty of Marion's pizza in your lifetime. Heck, you've probably celebrated more than a handful of major life events there, including at least a few birthday parties. But have you ever looked around and noticed all of those famous faces in black and white photos lining the walls?
According to the evidence, it would seem that back in the 1970s a ton of famous people visited Dayton and ate a lot of Marion's pizza, enjoying it enough to be photographed smiling while holding up their plates. But why?
Marion's Piazza takes a short paragraph to answer the question on their website, briefly mentioning the Kenley Players and then moving right along to the next topic. But who were the Kenley Players, and why did they come to Dayton just to eat our thin crust, square-cut pizza?
As it turns out, John Kenley was a man who devoted his life to show business. Between 1940 and 1995, he produced more than 500 plays and musicals with his Kenley Players, which featured a constant rotation of very famous people. In his staggeringly long career (he died in 2009 at the age of 103), he managed to bring some of the biggest stars of TV, stage and film to the Ohio towns of Dayton, Columbus, and Warren, as well as cities in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The trick to booking some of the biggest stars of the time? Kenley had a fool-proof method.
Step 1. Think of big name stars who are facing a slump – maybe their TV show was recently canceled, maybe they haven't had a lot of new movie roles lately, etc.
Step 2. Offer them a pretty outstanding amount of money to headline a play or musical for the summer in Ohio.
Step 3. Tailor the show to meet their particular talent. This musical wasn't originally written to include a tap dance scene? Well, it does now!
Step 4. Create a lot of hype – without the use of social media. He utilized a marketing method that is still followed by many theatre groups to this day: charge ticket prices that the average person in the community could easily afford, hire recognizable stars to play the main characters (see steps 1-3 above), and bring plenty of extra chairs to set up on the stairways, much to the chagrin of the Fire Marshall.
The Kenley Players began putting on summer stock plays in Dayton in 1957 at Memorial Hall. They would hold the cast parties at Marion's, hence the dozens of black and white photos lining the walls. And even though the last Kenley Players show in Dayton was decades ago, you can still look around and see the influence of the group's popularity.
Tina McPhearson of DayTonys [www.daytonys.org] credits John Kenley for the robust arts and theatre scene we have in Dayton, due in large part to the Kenley Players' ability to cultivate several generations of theatre-loving audiences. By making professional theatre accessible for average Daytonians, people who may have never otherwise seen a stage production got completely hooked on live theatre.
Next time you're at Marion's, take a look around and see which famous Kenley Players you recognize. You might see Gene Kelley, Rob Lowe, Vincent Price, Barbara Eden, Cloris Leachman, Henry Winkler and many, many more!
Did you get a chance to see a Kenley Players production? Let us know about it by leaving a comment below!
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